Fiction – February 2020

A month of solid good quality reading. Plenty to enjoy here.

The first in Garry Disher’s series featuring DI Hal Challis working at the Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne, Australia. Fortunately for us readers, while Challis is a well drawn and interesting character, the supporting cast is more robust and also worthy of attention. The backdrop is superbly drawn, with nuggets of observational beauty peppering the descriptions of life and death in this part of the world. The main plot here is about a serial killer targeting young women. While the plot is not as complex as some of the genre, it has enough twists to satisfy and is credible. In short, a good police procedural novel. Continue reading

The Blood Road – Stuart MacBride

Number eleven of the novels in the series featuring the one and only Logan McRae, this is a good addition which continues the high standards set before.

This time around, McRae is hit by a strange blast from the past. Detective Inspector Bell died two years ago. So why has his body turned up now in a car accident? Why did he fake his death? Where has he been, and what has he been up to?

McRae digs into the mystery, and in true defective detective fashion, doesn’t always get things right, but always kicks up a fuss and a trail of chaotic events.

The plot is solid, the writing fast, furious, and stiffened with some exceedingly sharply observed humor – despite the serious and troubling themes the book deals with.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s a must read, though you should really do yourself a favor and go back to the first so you can enjoy them all.

22 Dead Little Bodies – Stuart MacBride

This is a contemporary crime collection including:

  • 22 Dead Little Bodies – a short novel
  • Stramash – short story
  • Bad Heir Day – short story
  • The 45% Hangover – novella

All feature the author’s creations, DS Logan McRae and DCI Roberta Steel.

If it’s not a contradiction too far, although there is not much to them – by comparison with the full length novels – they are well put together, and feature some of the trademark snappy dialog, shocking violence, and stories of suburban murder and mayhem. There are also moments of high comedy, though you my wonder if it is appropriate to laugh given the whole circumstances.

I enjoyed all the stories. Bad Heir Day was the most poignant, and 22 Dead Little Bodies the most complete.

If you are a McRae fan, you must read them. If you haven’t encountered McRae, I would recommend starting with one of the novels, because these don’t quite have the same punch and pacing that the novels do.

In the Cold Dark Ground – Stuart MacBride

It is very interesting to compare this Logan McRae tale with the same author’s A Song for the Dying featuring ex policeman Ash Henderson. Henderson’s life was ruined by a gangster, and he did everything he could to kill that person. McRae is under threat from a gangster, too, no less dangerous, but he really struggles with the concept of taking the law into his own hands – though he often crosses the line in his dealings with some criminals – and does not seem to have the same hunger for survival at all costs.

That apart, this is a good piece of crime fiction, with lots of twists and turns alongside teh shocking violence, cracking dialogue and black, black humor.

It starts with a businessman going missing, then a male body (head wrapped in a bin bag) turns up. Is this the missing businessman? At the same time, the uncrowned king of crime in Aberdeen is dying, and the vultures are circling. McRae is caught up in the scenario, not least because he has been picked as the successor!

On the police front, matters are somewhat complicated because others want to take over his case, there’s a new officer in town who hates his guts, and Professional Standards are waiting in the wings. .

Life’s a bit complicated, for sure, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Overall, a good read, and highly recommended.

A Song for the Dying – Stuart MacBride


This is very much a change of pace from the Spenser books, this time featuring an ex-policeman (Ash Henderson) who starts the book in prison. He is there because evil Mrs. Kerrigan framed him for his brother’s murder, and nobody will believe he has been stitched up. What’s worse, is that very time Henderson comes up for parole, Mrs Kerrigan ensures there is trouble, and skewers his chances of release.

However, at this point the Inside Man resurfaces. That’s the name given to a serial killer of women who cuts them up and sticks a baby doll inside them. Sick. (there’s a lot of sick stuff in this book. Be warned.). Henderson came closest to catching the killer years ago, and is taken on by a Detective Superintendent in charge of a special task force now trying to get their man.

Of course, Henderson has some other ideas about what to do with his freedom while hunting down the Inside Man.

This is violent, stark, and suspenseful. Occasionally you might get overwhelmed by the number of characters kicking about, but if you can hang in there, it’s worth it.

The Missing and the Dead – Stuart MacBride

This is turbo charged, all action, wise-cracking, crime fiction, with a 100% Scottish flavor and setting, that never lets up. It’s number nine in the Logan McRae series, and has a well established core conflict (of sorts) between McRae and DCI Steel, the latter being one half of a lesbian couple whose children McRae has fathered. You might say it has a modern flavor, too!

In this book, there is a drug ring, and a crew of cash machine robbers that the police are trying to break. And all the time, as the book reminds us, the usual day to day crimes continue: vandalism, muggings, drunk driving, domestic abuse, and not forgetting the challenge of demented pensioners, and escaping cattle. It’s a rich blend. Unfortunately, on top of this, there’s the body of a six year old girl washed up on the coast, and the search for her identity and killer is far from straightforward. Logan becomes involved with a young mother who worries that the dead girl might be her own, taken some years before.

There is, in short, a lot going on. And the author does a masterful job of holding it together, with slick pacing, neat twists, a mix of police competitiveness and politics, some cracking dialogue, and a fine eye for twists and turns.

It’s the dialogue that gets noticed, but the author has a wonderful eye for observation, and an even better turn of descriptive phrase that repeatedly adds to the atmosphere, and the sense of realism.

This is a chunky, gutsy, and thoroughly enjoyable book.

Close to the bone – Stuart MacBride

Detective Inspector Logan McRae is the Aberdeen copper living in a world of death and destruction. This time around it starts off with the discovery of a body, chained to a stake, strangled, stabbed, and sporting a necklace formed by a burning tire. It’s straight out of a bestselling book – one being filmed on site, locally – and yet surely it’s more to do with organized crime.

If that were not bad enough, someone is going around crippling oriental gentlemen with hammer blows to their knees, but the victims are staying schtum. Then there’s the small matter of the bundles of bones being left around McRae’s caravan home. Oh, and two teenage lovers are missing and the police are accused of not doing enough to find them. What else could happen?

Quite a lot.

And it happens alongside McRae balancing several plates on poles all at once, as he is harassed by his superior, troubled by the woes of his hospitalized girlfriend, assaulted by a deadly enemy, challenged by the behavior of his colleagues and subordinates, and wooed by a dying crime lord.

What you get here is terrific banter, a rapid fire plot with great misdirection and red herrings, sparks of black humor, and generally decent folk trying to muddle through. The major minus is that the setting and the characters are so powerful, they have a habit of reminding you of past books. (In other words, it’s very familiar territory for those who have read any of the previous books in the series.) But it’s great entertainment.

Birthdays for the Dead – Stuart MacBride

The Birthday Boy is a serial kidnapper and killer, preying on young girls. For twelve years he has not only committed these murders, but has continued to torment and torture the poor parents with a succession of birthday cards, each one showing the progressive violence visited on their child.

Detective Constable Ash Henderson is one of those parents. However, he has kept it secret – even from his wife – with a cover story about his daughter, Rebecca, running away. He has also intercepted the birthday cards before his wife could see them. Why? Henderson is trying to catch this deadly killer, and knows that if his personal involvement is revealed, he will be kept off the case.

It’s an engrossing (and very troubling) scenario, which MacBride seems to relish.And if you think it couldn’t get any more intense, think again. From the start, the author (figuratively) turns up the heat, and adds more to the mix.

Henderson’s desperate personal crusade is not waged with due respect for law, order and justice. There is violence and there is corruption, with Henderson being unafraid to act in place of the judicial system with not so much as a backward glance.

Inevitably, I have to compare this with MacBride’s other crime series about Logan McRae. How to put it? McRae is no shrinking violet, but he is absolutely as soft as soft can be alongside the one man avenger that is Henderson. In short, Henderson is not a nice person. Ok, that was a bit restrained. Henderson is bad.  Some would call him worse names, and he would probably deserve them. But he is the central figure (and there are more on the way) so whether you like the book or not may depend on your disposition towards such individuals.

Whereas there is plenty to get your teeth into in the character of Henderson, most of the other people in the story do not get too much attention. There are a couple of female characters – Dr MacDonald and Rhona the police colleague – who might develop into worthwhile creations, but other than that it was cardboard cutout stuff. There is a modest organized crime connection, with Henderson in debt to some people who are even worse than him. But, for me, the Mrs Kerrigan character seemed more low level cartoon than low life. And I thought Inglis, the Boss, was just poor.

The story has its twists and turns, and the final disclosure is a powerful one. However, there are too many missed opportunities, or overcooking of the situation, to make this one of his best. I confess I am intrigued enough to want to get the next one – maybe that’s a success for the author – though I would not wholeheartedly encourage others to read it. The Logan McRae material is better. But I would not rule out MacBride turning the tables on us poor readers, and making Ash Henderson a glorious success.

Score: 6/10.